Book Review: If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller by Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver was released in 1979; it is written in postmodernist narrative and takes readers through a whole spectrum of sensations as they read the 10 stories woven together in this masterpiece. Highly recommended!

Italo Calvino | Italian publication 1979 | English transl. 1981 | Postmodernist novel

Not all books are meant to be light and quick reads, even if they are fictional in nature. There have been quite a few I’ve started to read and, with a strong feeling of guilt, given up as a bad job. My bad, obviously. 

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, too, is not an easy read. It contains passages that need a peaceful atmosphere, an alert mind or whatever else it is that makes for an ideal atmosphere for the Reader. It draws the Reader into a whole new world.

Did I say the Reader? 

The Reader (which is you) plays the central character in this literary masterpiece by Italo Calvino. You are ably supported by the Other Reader (Ludmilla, whom you obviously have a big crush on), an author suffering from writer’s block of some kind (Silas Flannery) and a shady translator (Ermes Marana) who seems to be the root of all the trouble. The book’s central premise is that you, the Reader, start reading a book that starts out well but is incomplete; you take it back to the bookstore you bought it from and are given a ‘complete’ copy in exchange. However, you discover that the new book is an entirely different story! You go back to exchange the new book for a version of the original book. Again. And again. 

This saga continues through If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller – each book you begin reading tantalizes you with the story it is weaving before abruptly ending or getting interrupted and leaving you wanting to read more. The purported reasons for this mix up are many – ranging from a simple mixup during printing, a bungled translation of the original, a different story under the same name, a change of scene or atmosphere etc. Each book you procure through this journey has a different title and seems to be written by a different author spanning across countries – either as an original, a translation of the original but with no link to the original, or should I say, the first book. 

Confusing, isn’t it? What is the point of writing such a book, you’d ask.

Calvino lends his brilliance to a total of 10 such books within the book. To my mind, a single author weaving 10 different stories (or at least their starts) under a different genre, is in itself a significant achievement. Without spoiling this fantastic book, let me just say that there is something in all these books that comes together delightfully in the end.

Each book is interspersed with a chapter that takes the base story ahead. Calvino sets you up for reading his new novel with minute instructions: preparing yourself for a long and comfortable read that includes your position, the lighting, refreshments you may want, etc. He also ingeniously describes the various kinds of books you may come across in a bookshop before you pick up his latest novel. Only post ensuring that the Reader is in place and comfortable does he commence with the actual story – a smorgasbord of events in which the Reader plays the central role as the plot gets fantastic and intriguing as you hurtle from one situation to another. All in pursuit of what you started out with – to read one complete and correct copy of Calvino’s new novel.

Through the words and thoughts of the Reader, the Other Reader and the Author, Calvino delivers a series of delicious blows that will blow the minds off (once again) any self-respecting book lover. I admit that I had never thought of these angles, and I had to re-read many a passage to ensure I had read correctly and understood the essence as Calvino intended. I remain unsure. 

Calvino, time and again, explores the peculiar mindset of a reader versus that of a writer and how they are parallel tracks that will always run together but can never merge. So all of us who are readers and also write occasionally may do well to examine our thoughts when we are doing either of these things that we so love and think one stems from the other. Another passing thought that comes to my mind is that If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller is the kind of book that one can read early in life and then again at middle age or even later and it’ll always feel like you are reading a completely different book. 

Yes, this is a challenging read and many a reader may succumb to the ‘convoluted’ plot and storyline and escape to relatively easier, quicker reads. After all, we are already well into the age of instant noodles, and instant gratification is a reality. However, this has been one of my most satisfying reads and has given me a sense of wonder about Calvino’s construction and content in this book – a classic in the truest sense. 

I cannot end this long review without mentioning William Weaver, the man responsible for translating the book from Italian to English and retaining the magic of the original. A mean feat indeed!